The Pronunciation of Hawaiian Place Names


Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Na ko ka papahana Kaniʻāina: Larry Kimura, Kaʻawaloa Kauaʻula, me Bruce Torres Fischer

As documented by native speakers of the Kaniʻāina Hawaiian speech archive

The overwhelming amount of Hawaiian place names left for us in written form by our Native Hawaiian speakers is an astounding testament to love of place and the Hawaiian cultural identity.

The technology necessary to capture the leo (voice) through audio recording came later, and for Hawaiʻi, at a time when hardly anyone noticed that the last of our traditional Hawaiian speakers (with firsthand aural knowledge of Hawaiian place names) would soon no longer be with us. What little audio documentation we have of our last Native speakers can help maintain the correct pronunciation of our Hawaiian place names. Knowing the traditional pronunciation passed on orally through Hawaiian is integral to any attempt to the interpretation of the meaning of a Hawaiian place name. A short or long vowel, a glottal or no glottal in the throat, makes a tremendous difference in meaning.

The shocking devastation of Lahaina by fire naturally incites a desire for an explanation of such a catastrophe and some people seek out the meaning of the name Lahaina and find written documentation that an “old pronunciation” is Lāhainā (lā, sun, and hainā, cruel) or cruel sun as in Place Names of Hawaiʻi by Pūkuʻi and Elbert. This is an interpretation relevant to the dry weather conditions of that area which can lead to a fire.

In listening to audio recordings available through the online Kaniʻāina Hawaiian speech repository (, several Native Hawaiian speakers born between 1895-1909 from Lahaina challenge other sources such as those publications that do not cite the source of their information, or if cited, then require further investigation of spelling based on reliable pronunciation.

In the meantime, Hawaiʻi’s Board on Geographic Names (HBGN) is represented by members from various state agencies in charge of Hawaiʻi’s official geographic names and their spellings. This is a vast undertaking, considering the thousands of Hawaiian names that are around us.

An important fact for the board to understand is that Hawaiian orthography is basically phonetic, or represented by the speech sounds of the language. Therefore, whatever archival recordings that can be made available to assist the ear proficient in Hawaiian are critical. Aside from native speaker Hawaiian language sound recordings, there exists the challenge of the many written sources, both contemporary and historical, either in English or Hawaiian, by native speakers of the language which require a variety of techniques for pronunciation verification. Additionally, the committee must also contend with spelling conventions and make decisions about whether to spell some names as one or two words based on their meaning.

Our Hawaiian place names are precious and integral to maintaining Hawaiʻi as Hawaiʻi. The work of the Hawaiian language revitalization movement for over 40 years is crucial in contributing to this quality of life for Hawaiʻi. Opportunities to share this value through Ka Wai Ola for Hawaiian Language Month are very much appreciated. E ola ka ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi!